This data was last updated on 25 September 2018.
History: The Vilna Shul began in the 1892, thirteen years after Eastern European Jews began moving to Boston in large numbers. Originally, its members gathered in their homes to pray, and then, in 1906, purchased the Twelfth Baptist Church, located at 45 Phillips Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. After ten years, the City of Boston took the Church by eminent domain, so that the city could expand the nearby Wendell Phillips public school. In return for their relocation, the City compensated the congregation with $20,000, which they used to purchase nearby property. In 1919, the first stones were laid for Vilna Shul’s new location a few blocks away at 18 Phillips Street. The congregation worshiped there until it closed in 1986 due to declining membership caused by migration to the suburbs and the destruction of Boston’s West End. In 1996, the building was rescued from its condemned state and the non-profit Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Heritage was formed. Much time and dedication went into restoring the beautiful building that was greatly damaged from standing empty for a decade. Today, Vilna Shul serves as a center for Jewish culture and learning, a center for community, and an artifact that tells the story of immigration to Boston. Its rich history can be traced through the original painting, decoration, and religious paraphernalia preserved as part of the building renovations. The Vilna seeks to engage community members (both Jewish and non-Jewish) through programming including music, history, conversation, literature, and film. While no longer a religious organization, the Vilna hosts High Holiday services, as well as lay-led egalitarian young adult services once a month with their Havurah on the Hill initiative. The initiative began in 2002 when a group of Jewish men in their twenties began collaborating with the Shul to host Havurah on the Hill once a month. Today, these Kabbalat Shabbat services regularly attract over 100 people. The The staff of Vilna Shul seeks to educate widely on the history of Judaism in Boston by providing a welcoming educational space for people of all backgrounds and religious affiliations.
Description: Vilna Shul stands out from the surrounding buildings in Beacon Hill: there is a large stone and iron gate in front and a massive circular stained glass window featuring a Star of David above a large, arched door. Upon entering, two staircases, both leading up to the sanctuary, flank a small main hall. At the end of the main hall on the first floor is a small museum. Following a path created by suspended display boards, a visitor is led through Boston’s Jewish history. Each of the display boards documents an aspect of the changing landscape of Judaism in Boston. Pictures from the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries highlight shifting synagogue locations, neighborhood demographics, and patterns of dress and connect visitors to the rich and ongoing history of Boston’s Jewish community. Tours of Vilna Shul, including the museum, are also offered by staff members. On the second floor of the Shul is a sanctuary whose walls, with their cracking paint and faded murals, are testimony to the commitment to maintaining the building’s original décor and structure. In the sanctuary there are two separate seating sections: one originally built for men and the other for women, although no such separation is practiced at Vilna today. The Sanctuary’s seating in the men’s section consists of pews from the former 12th Baptist Church. If looking closely, one might be able to make out the crosses that used to adorn the pews. The bimah is in the center of the sanctuary while the ark stands at the front. This layout is typical of synagogues built by Eastern European Jews and demonstrates the congregation’s devotion to creating a traditional structure, albeit with American twist: above the ner tamid (meaning “eternal light” in Hebrew, the ner tamid is a lamp that perpetually burns near where the torah scrolls are stored) sits a bald eagle. This symbolism is representative of the immigrants merging their Jewish and American identities into one safe and sacred space. Starting in the fall of 2018, Vilna Shul will undergo a two-part multi-million dollar renovation campaign. During phase one of the renovation, the Vilna will add over 1,000 square feet as well as building entrance ramps and a lift to make the building safe and accessible to all people. The renovation will also add air conditioning and heating to the building, allowing the Vilna to begin a long time goal of maintaining not only suspended display boards, but also physical artifacts and Judaica from Boston’s Jewish history. The second phase of the renovation will restore the three layers of folk painting murals on the walls of the sanctuary.
Activities and Schedule: Vilna Shul offers a wide variety of educational programs that seek to inform the wider community about Judaism. The focus on education emphasizes that Vilna Shul is an open environment, welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds. For a full list of programming, visit Vilna Shul’s website. Along with educational programs, Vilna Shul has social programs for all phases of life. Young adult groups like “Schmooze and Jews” and the “Nosh Group” allow for young adults to explore the city and build relationships with fellow community members. Families can participate in “Downtown Families,” a shabbat group that celebrates over dinner, music, arts, and crafts. Those in between young family life and senior citizenship can join the “Downtown Social Club.” The Vilna also has a group called Seniors Connect! This group meets once a month to connect seniors from across Greater Boston. There are games, discussions, films and various other events held to help seniors get to know one another. Every month Vilna Shul hosts a Kabbalat Shabbat service run by its young adult initiative, Havurah on the Hill. The evening features singing, Shabbat services, a featured speaker talking about issues relevant to Jewish young adults today, and a professionally catered community dinner. Jewish life cycle events, including Bar/Bat mitzvahs, weddings,and bris/brit milah’s (baby namings), can also be held at the Vilna Shul. Since the Shul has no permanent rabbi, the staff refers families and couples to rabbis at Hebrew College, but other rabbis are certainly welcome. Beginning October 2018, Vilna Shul will be closed for renovations with an aim to open again in time for the Jewish High Holidays in 2019.
Partnerships: Vilna Shul’s partnerships are generally program-based, and thus vary according to specific program goals. Some programs, such as the Voices of Freedom concert, in partnership with the Museum of African American History, are longstanding. The Voices of Freedom concert brings Jewish, Muslim, and Christian choirs together to fill the Vilna with songs of freedom and a spirit of understanding. In accordance with its mission to educate, Vilna Shul gives tours to many universities, high schools, and primary schools. The Shul has a particularly strong relationship with universities such as Brandeis, Wentworth, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern. In the future, Vilna Shul hopes to partner with the Boston International Newcomers Academy, an international school specialized for immigrant students, to allow students interested in education, teaching, and museum work to volunteer and gain experience incorporating their own immigrant stories into the work of the Vilna.